Daily Management Review

VHP, a discrete place to design


Ever noticed how innovation, before it becomes hyped by voluble salesmen and loud advertising, happens in quiet and secretive labs? There’s a reason for that, and it’s not only protecting secrets and patents. Banknote-paper producer VHP belongs to velvet layer of the innovation world behind the production units.

A traditional company…
VHP is one of the oldest paper producing companies in the world. Created in the 17th century in the Netherlands, it has been supplying central banks with the medium they need to print banknotes, all over Europe, since the end of the 19th century. After having changed hands several times throughout the 20th century, it joined banknote printer Oberthur Fiduciaire, one of the leaders on the global market.
130 workers work in the dedicated factory, which churns all year long, tucked away in the woods of central Holland. Paper-specialized website Broken Cartons describes: “Creative paper making is an everyday event at VHP and has resulted in the creation of the Curious Collection of fine papers including premium coated, translucent, metallic and other unique and creative papers.” Through it, comes almost 7000 tons of one of the world’s most precious cargo.
Producing paper may sound like a dull job but producing banknote paper certainly isn’t. The responsibility which rests on VHP’s shoulders at every new order is enormous. Banknotes not only enable a country to keep its daily economy running, but it also acts as a token of government authority: any failure in the design (the medium of which is the paper produced by VHP), and the repercussions could be dramatic. On the other hand, when the design is done with taste and a fine knowledge of the regional culture, the banknote can be a powerful symbol of unity. Indeed, the banknote contains the great national myths, and these are the historical cement of national unity. Indeed, the visual symbols that can be seen on banknotes are supposed to say something about society's shared values. For example, in 2012, in South Africa, was released a new banknote that had the face of Nelson Mandela printed on it. As the governor of the Reserve Bank, Gill Marcus, expressed at the time: “A country’s currency is a fundamental component of its national identity. It should be a reflection of its cultural heritage.”
… serving new challenges
To the design challenge must be added the counterfeiting one. The job is nerve-racking, despite its smooth appearance: VHP lives and thrives on a market where its products are under constant attack from competitors and from counterfeiters, both of which will be taking microscopic looks at the slightest flaw within the product. Despite strong efforts to make its new banknotes unforgeable, the Australian central bank observed counterfeiting in its new currency this year, stressing the necessary efforts to push technology ever further. Mario Christodoulou writes for the Sydney Morning Herald: “They were once described as unforgeable, but these days Australia's polymer notes are under attack. Counterfeiters are using cheap printing technology to make notes so good they can fool the banks and courts.”
The focused and controlled nature of the environment isn’t only a result of the average personality who works here: it’s also an industrial necessity. This type of environment is necessary for paper mills like VHP to work with their counterparts, such as Central banks and banknote printers, who must always keep high standards and thorough production processes in mind. Inks, papers, and security features used must be agreed upon between the paper producer and the printer, because both paper and design will blend into the final product, the banknote.
VHP is part of a small family of high-tech companies, whose roots blend in with ancient history. In fact, VHP’s former client and current stakeholder, Oberthur Fiduciaire, is another of these companies which have remained discreetly on the edge of technology for centuries. Since 1842, Oberthur has been developing anti-counterfeiting techniques, shrouded in secrecy. So as to improve its supply chain reporting capacities, which is the main factor of corporate security, Oberthur Fiduciaire, one of the world’s main banknote producers, purchased VHP in the middle of 2017.
Last July the two companies announced “Arjowiggins Security has entered into a binding agreement with Oberthur Fiduciaire concerning the sale of its subsidiary, Arjowiggins Security BV, covering the VHP mill in Apeldoorn, the Netherlands, and the intellectual property rights related to the production of banknote paper, for a gross amount of Euro 22 million, (plus an earn-out).” The vertically integrated former supplier and customer will enable the production duo to work more tightly and more securely.
Not everybody is meant to work in a place like VHP. Different strokes being for different folks, some people opt for more upbeat and vibrant environments, such as sales rooms and trading floors. But what is innovative is not necessarily quick and hectic, it is in fact more often methodical and accurate. And beyond the matter of personal professional taste, lies another screen: craftsmen hired in such activities must have impeccable records, so as to protect both materials and production processes.